Some major shifts in Jewish life happen in dramatic fashion, others less so.
In recent days details are slowly emerging about a major initiative being undertaken by the government of Israel, in consultation with American Jewish leaders, to invest more than $1 billion over the next two decades to strengthen Jewish identity among young people in the diaspora between the ages of 12 and 35.
This is welcome, exciting news, though the basis, at least in part, for this initiative is the growing awareness in Jerusalem that there is no longer an assurance that younger Jews in the diaspora feel connected to their Judaism or the Zionist cause.
What is historic here is not only the size of the funds being discussed — details are still sketchy — but the genuine partnership between Israeli and diaspora leaders, each recognizing a new level of interdependence.
There was a time in the early days of the Jewish state that its leaders preached the negation of the diaspora, and looked down upon diaspora Jews as less than authentic. David Ben-Gurion was outspoken on insisting on aliyah, to the annoyance of Jewish leaders here. In this country, there was a sense for many years that Israelis were our poor cousins, dependent on our philanthropic generosity. That’s all changed, and the relationship has become more complicated as Israelis have built a strong economy and resilient society while assimilation has taken its toll on these shores.
American Jews have come to realize that their sense of comfort and security at home is made possible, in part, because of the reality of a strong Jewish state. And Israeli leaders are recognizing that they are dependent on the support of world Jewry, less economically than in other ways, from politics to tourism to a sense of shared history, and common destiny.
In the consultations that have taken place in Jerusalem about this new infusion of funds, we are told that Israeli leaders were doing less preaching and more listening, and there was a realization among all concerned that we need each other to succeed. Israel needs world Jewry; world Jewry needs Israel.
A committee made up of Israeli and diaspora delegates reportedly will look to create programs in seven content areas, starting as soon as this year: immersive experiences; follow-up from those experiences; Israel and peoplehood education in formal institutions and informal settings; serving “the global good”; Jewish life and Israel engagement on campus; and the aliyah of young professionals.
A word of caution: even major funding cannot solve all of our problems, particularly those that go to the roots of Jewish identity, education and engagement. And the sad, little-known saga of The Institute for Jewish Life, planned in the early 1970s to solve many of the assimilation problems we face now — and forced to close after a few years due to little funding and less communal enthusiasm — should serve as a cautionary tale about the limits of one-stop solutions.
Still, and most importantly, the recognition of Israeli leaders that they have a responsibility to ensure the continuity of Judaism and Jewish life around the world is a major milestone. Whether the decision is based on self-preservation or a combination of moral, demographic and political factors, we salute them.